witness credibility

63 – Sonia Rodriguez – “You Got Me”: Discrediting Defense Paid Opinion Witnesses

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his law partner Sonia Rodriguez for an overview of deconstructing defense-paid opinion witnesses. They highlight many of their favorite strategies to use when dealing with a witness who won’t answer your questions, their favorite unexpected “gifts” from witnesses, and the importance of why someone becomes a defense-paid opinion witness in the first place. This episode is full of shocking real-life examples you don’t want to miss.

Michael begins the episode by highlighting the defense strategy to hire someone to discredit their client. He asks Sonia, “What do you do to deal with this?” Sonia describes the first action she takes, which is reviewing what organizations they show they are affiliated with on their CV (curriculum vitae). Most professional organizations have ethical guidelines which these witnesses must abide by. She’s found success in displaying these guidelines to the witness during the deposition and using them to prevent the witness from stating biased information.

Michael then describes the common narrative these witnesses all portray which every plaintiff attorney listening is sure to relate to. Any injury from the crash goes away in 6-12 weeks, but any injury from 10 years ago is most certainly the cause of everything today, even if they haven’t been to a doctor for it in 9 years. Sonia has combatted this in medical witnesses by focusing heavily on the client’s description of pain. Most doctors will admit that the patient’s description of pain is a very important part of the diagnosis. She uses this information to put the witness in a position of saying, “the records aren’t adequate,” which does not play well with the jury.

The conversation then shifts to the difficult but highly effective strategy of turning the defense paid opinion witness into your witness. Sonia explains why this is so difficult to do successfully, but has maneuvered these difficulties by focusing her depos on what she knows she can get from them. She shares an example of this where she was able to build up the witness’s credibility, then use it to get some simple, clear concessions.

On the other hand, Michael says his primary goal in every defense paid opinion witness depo is to make them his witness. Instead of fighting with them in an area where he does not have credibility, he spends his time researching the witness, reading prior depositions, and trying to find what they will give you based off those prior experiences.

Michael elaborates further on the importance of reading past testimonies by sharing a shocking example with a biomechanical engineer who claimed his client could not possibly have a herniated disc from the crash. Before trial, Michael read several of his previous depositions and went through all of the literature the witness cited in the case. He then shares an example of how he used those prior depos to discredit the witness, how his voir dire helped him do this while also relating to the jury, and why reading the literature can help your case.

Sonia wholeheartedly agrees and gives her real world experience using the literature to your advantage. She shares an example where a neurosurgeon used a study about the prevalence of herniated discs to claim her client’s pain wasn’t caused by the crash. After reading the article, Sonia found that it only referred to a specific type of herniated disc, which was not the type her client had. After revealing this, all the witness could say was, “You got me.”

Another all too familiar roadblock is the witness who just won’t answer your questions. While Sonia and Michael both agree this will always be a barrier, they both share insightful techniques on how you can overcome this. Sonia does this by always recording the testimony, so she can show the jury the witness was refusing to cooperate or concede to basic things. Michael then offers another strategy he employs with uncooperative witnesses – using basic, fair questions in a true or false format. While you may still need to ask the same question 10 times to get a response, you can always cut out the first 9 asks. The key to this is to never appear mad or frustrated because it doesn’t present well to the jury. Sonia agrees with this strategy and points out how well-suited it is for a Zoom deposition.

On a lighter note, Michael and Sonia share their favorite unexpected “gifts” they’ve received from paid opinion witnesses. Sonia details her experience of utilizing past testimony to prove an orthopedic surgeon was simply touting lies for money and highlights the importance of sharing information with other members of the plaintiff’s bar. Michael’s favorite “gift” was an ex-sheriff providing testimony on a drunk driving case, who made an incredibly racist statement in his deposition. The judge insisted the case not be made about race, which Michael had no issuing agreeing to. But when Michael asked the sheriff the same question at trial (assuming the witness had been prepped not to make the same mistake), he made the SAME racist statement he made in the deposition.

While these unexpected “gifts” are a huge blessing, they’re hard to come by on most cases. Sonia and Michael conclude the conversation by exploring why people become paid opinion witnesses in the first place. He accurately states, “This isn’t why people want to become doctors or engineers.” Michael explains how many of them either just weren’t good at their jobs or experienced an injury that rendered them unable to perform surgery.

This podcast also covers using before and after witnesses, focusing on the symptoms instead of the diagnosis, whether or not to “go in for the kill” in a deposition, verifying the qualifications of a witness, and so much more.

25 – Sonia Rodriguez – Defeating Defense Medical Experts

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In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock partner, Sonia Rodriguez, for another installment of TLN Table Talk to answer the questions of our listeners. This episode focuses on defense medical “experts,” or as Michael calls them, “paid opinion witnesses.”

Michael calls this spade a spade right from the get-go, in that the title of “defense medical experts” is a sham. Many times, he says, they are called “independent experts” when they are neither independent nor an expert, not to mention the fact that they are hand-picked by defense lawyers who pay them for their testimony. Michael believes it is a huge fraud being perpetrated on our clients, on the jury, and on the court system. He says, typically “we know what their report is going to say once we hear their name,” further exemplifying this flaw in the system.

So, Michael asks, “what do we do to expose this and show the jurors the truth?” Sonia believes it is critical we expose the relationships experts have with the lawyers who hired them, how often they’ve been used by that firm or the defense industry, as well as how much money they make from that business. She also uncovers what percentage of their business is spent on reviewing files for defense lawyers vs. practicing medicine, in some cases. All of which can go a long way in revealing these witnesses for what they really are, which is “paid opinion witnesses.” Michael also explains how he doesn’t like to even use the word “expert,” which gives them the mantle of that title. He goes on to discuss the harsh reality and his distain for medical professionals who misuse their degrees to go against the very oath they have taken to “do no harm,” while we represent legitimately injured clients, and they do it for money! They both agree how uncovering the financial ties and bias of these witnesses also says a lot about them because they could likely be making much more money by seeing patients, but instead are reviewing cases for a defense lawyer. Michael also talks through a real example of what he’s run into on how these medical witnesses come to find themselves making money in this way and how their path toward testifying can ironically parallel his client’s paths.

Michael and Sonia share a plethora of examples regarding their tactics on utilizing depositions, both past and present, to build their cases, ranging from networking with other attorneys and medical professionals to leveraging amazon.com in the middle of a deposition. Sonia explains how you cannot go into a deposition with a broad brush, but rather be laser-focused and able to drill down on even a single word, in some cases, to make your entire case. And to sum things up, Michael talks through the very polarizing two ends of the spectrum his preparations take him with defense medical experts, where they are likely to either be way “off the deep end” and obviously working as a paid witness, or he will focus his energies on essentially turning them to help his case. The strategies they both describe are pure methodical genius.

The conversation shifts to talk specifically about the tone and demeanor both Michael and Sonia use when deposing paid medical witnesses. They both agree the tone and demeaner you use in a paid medical witness deposition is extremely important, as it will likely be replayed for the jury at some point and jurors will also be watching to see how you handle yourself in this situation, the same way they do in the courtroom. We, as plaintiff attorneys, also need to be cognizant of how we are approaching the deposition so it leads the jury to come to their own conclusions regarding the credibility of the paid medical witness and their testimony. It also becomes reflective for the jury to feel the danger themselves of allowing these paid medical witnesses to get away with using their titles as a form of “expertness” in exchange for being paid by the defense. In other words, if we just “rip into them” it will likely backfire on us and not work at all in our favor. Not to mention, Sonia adds, that today’s juries are tired of the theatrics and enthusiastic approach of some lawyers, where the days of yelling and pounding your fist on the table are now long gone.

All in all, this Table Talk with Michael and Sonia was thorough and filled with an enormous number of real examples from their experiences over the years. As a trial lawyer, you will likely run into paid medical witnesses in trials often, and this table talk could be the one thing that prepares you most for success.

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